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School Board Plans Hearing, Vote on Jefferson Name Change By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday June 21, 2005

Two years after a group of Jefferson Elementary School parents and teachers began circulating a petition to change the school’s name because of Thomas Jefferson’s connection to slavery, the general Berkeley public will get its first—and only—opportunity to officially enter the process when the BUSD Board of Education holds a public hearing on the issue prior to Wednesday night’s regular board meeting. 

While public comment on the issue has been widespread throughout the city—including in the letters pages of the Daily Planet—official input has been confined so far to a narrowly defined Jefferson School community.  

The hearing will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the Old City Hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in downtown Berkeley. Under Berkeley Unified’s facilities name-change policy, the board makes the final decision on proposed name changes following a vote by members of the current school community at the individual school: students, staff members, and parents and guardians of present students. The vote will be held during the board’s regular meeting, scheduled to begin at 7:45 p.m. 

At the end of last month, current Jefferson School community members voted to change the school’s name to Sequoia. Some people have suggested that the name referred to a 19th century Georgia Cherokee leader and inventor named Sequoya—also known as George Guess—who developed the Cherokee alphabet. However, school officials and literature distributed during the voting process both indicate that the proposed new name was intended to represent the giant California tree. 

Board members were evenly divided on the name change when the issue first came to them at their last meeting, with Board Vice President Terry Doran and Director John Selawsky indicating that they would respect the vote of the school community to change the name, and Directors Shirley Issel and Joaquin Rivera saying they would oppose the name change. Board President Nancy Riddle said she had not yet made up her mind. 

Board members are also divided as to what criteria should be used to uphold or deny the proposed Jefferson Elementary name change. Selawsky said at the last meeting that the board’s only function should be to certify whether the school community properly followed the district’s name-change policy. Rivera countered that the board’s function in the name change is “more than just an automatic process; it’s within the board’s discretion to vote it up or down.” 

The policy itself is silent on that issue, stating only that once a name-change petition has been received, “the board will act on the petition.” 

In her report to the Board, Superintendent Michele Lawrence said the she “can certify to the board that there were no violations of [the name change] policy” during the school’s vote. “The superintendent believes the steps outlined in the present policy have been followed as required...” 

Lawrence called the district’s name-change policy itself “significantly flawed,” and board members on both sides of the Jefferson name change issue have indicated that once the Jefferson change is decided, the board will move forward with changes to that policy. Among the complaints received is that the district’s policy allows K-3 elementary school children to vote on proposed school name changes, while excluding—among others—school alumni, parents of students who have graduated from the school, and residents of the school neighborhood. 

Board President Riddle said that board members had decided not to make changes while the Jefferson name change campaign was ongoing for fear of being accused of trying to sway the school community vote one way or the other. 

Budget matters are also scheduled to take up much of the board’s attention Wednesday night. 

As earlier promised—or warned—the superintendent’s office is recommending reductions in the Berkeley High athletic program. The $25,000 in recommended General Fund cuts—in overtime and stipends for coaches of some freshman teams—are expected to be partially offset by an expected $20,000 grant award from the independent nonprofit Berkeley Athletic Fund. 

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the Board will release to the public the proposed contract settlement agreements with its five employee unions, and will take its first public look at the proposed district budget for fiscal year 2005-06.